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Acme brings unique “thinking” to Cookeville

Liz Engel Clark
Wednesday, Nov 2, 2011


Bob Rhea, owner of Acme Industrial Thinking, uses a modified pencil saw to shape a wooden sculpture. Acme, a company born in North Carolina but now based in Cookeville, specializes in custom architectural pieces, furniture, signage and more. CBJ Photo/Liz Engel Clark

COOKEVILLE -- If you ask Jen and Bob Rhea to describe their business, Acme Industrial Thinking, in one sentence, you might have trouble getting an answer.

But one thing’s for certain. The fabrication studio/metal and wood working shop/art gallery, which was recently relocated from Asheville, N.C., to Cookeville’s West Side, has its hand in just about “anything and everything,” Bob says. He might craft a custom sign one day, for example, and piece of furniture, unique gate or garage door the next.

“That’s one of the biggest challenges we have, is talking to people about what we do,” Bob said. “A good way to put it is we do everything from furniture to movie props, art, signs, models.”

Acme Industrial Thinking was born in Asheville as a side business to the funky cafe/coffee shop the couple bought, remodeled and ran for several years. But Bob and Jen’s story really begins in Austin, Texas, where they settled after college. The couple, with a combined background in art, graphic design, engineering and photography, grew weary of the corporate grind. Jen had family in the Upper Cumberland and Jackson County, so they made the decision to drop everything and move.

“We made a huge leap and sold everything,” Jen said. “We knew we wanted to have our own business, we just didn’t know what. We took a year off, came to Jackson County, did some business research, bought a pop-up trailer and traveled up and down the East Coast. We kept passing through Asheville and just ended up there.”

In Asheville, Jen and Bob bought an existing coffee house/cafe in the historic - and touristy - Biltmore Village. A couple months later, they refurbished it and renamed it Kismet Cafe. Jen said they did all the remodeling work themselves, from the cafe’s look and design, to its bare-bones electrical and plumbing.

“We made all the fixtures and furniture, everything,” Bob said. “People kept asking us, ‘Can you make me one of these (tables)?’ That’s where Acme spun off.”

In 2004, however, back-to-back hurricanes, Hurricane Frances and Hurricane Ivan, flooded many of the shops and galleries in the Biltmore Village – including the Rhea’s coffee house, which was twice inundated with water. They rebuilt – again - a process that took nine months the second time around. After that, the couple seemed to be fighting an uphill battle, Jen said.

“It got to the point where it wasn’t fun anymore, so we sold the cafe,” she said. “Acme had been going for a couple of years. We hadn’t thought about living in Jackson County, besides our brief hiatus (after Texas), but it seemed like (the perfect fit).”

In January, Jen and Bob moved themselves and Acme Industrial Thinking to the 600-acre farm in Jackson County. Acme operated out of an existing shop on the property there, but the company’s budding Cookeville ties quickly drew its relocation in August to the city’s West Side, a downtown shopping area filled with locally-owned restaurants, stores, art studios and shops. After embracing Asheville’s artistic inspiration, the Rhea’s say the West Side is a perfect fit. The company’s studio is located at 9 N. Hickory Ave., Cookeville.

“The opportunities here are numerous, so we just decided to go ahead and invest and move (the business) to Cookeville,” Jen said. “It has been really nice, especially being on this side of town, it’s really creative.”

“There’s not a lot of people – or anybody – doing what we’re doing here,” Bob said.

The couple can work with home or business owners as well as interior designers. The company’s portfolio is filled with one-of-a-kind wood and metal design pieces: steel gates, cabinetry, woodworks, handmade signage, promotional pieces and more.

“We’re not a sign shop. I’ll make a sign one day, a piece of furniture the next, and after that, some artwork,” Ben said. “We never make the same piece twice. If you don’t want to buy it in a store, come see me.

“We don’t want people to limit their imagination, and that’s something we can bring to do the table,” he said.

For more information about Acme Industrial Thinking, visit http://acmeindustrialthinking.com or email ideas@acmeindustrialthinking.com.


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